Talking Movies

May 1, 2018

Lost & Found wins Best Foreign Film at the Arizona International Film Festival

Irish Writer/Director Liam O Mochain’s third feature film Lost & Found has won the Best Foreign Film Award at the 27th Arizona International Film Festival.

The award was announced on the closing night of the festival on Monday 30th  April 30.  Liam O Mochain (WC, The Book That Wrote Itself) said on hearing the news –  “It is fantastic to have won such a great award at our first international film festival with the film.  Lost & Found received a great reaction from the audience in Arizona.  It is a great festival and a long- standing supporter of indie films, showing 86 films from 22 countries”.  Producer Bernie Grummell added ‘We are delighted at winning at such a prestigious film festival.  It is a credit to all the cast and crew who worked on the film.  We look forward to audiences all over Ireland getting to see Lost & Found when Eclipse Pictures release the film in cinemas this summer’.

The Arizona award follows successful festival screenings at Dingle Film Festival, IndieCork and a sold-out world premiere at the 2017 Galway Film Fleadh where Donald Clarke of the Irish Times called it one of “the best films from this year’s Galway Film Fleadh” and Scott Larson from scottmovies.com said the film was ‘reminiscent of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, touching, funny and thoughtful”. Lost & Found is a feature film with 7 interconnecting stories set in and around a lost & found office of an Irish train station.  All segments are inspired by true stories, share a theme of something lost or found, and characters that come in and out of each other’s lives.  It was filmed over 5 years and completed in May 2017.  O Mochain says “The cast, crew and post team were great to work with. They were very dedicated to the film and kept coming back every year to work on the next segment”

The ensemble cast includes Aoibhín Garrihy (The Fall; Fair City; Dancing with the Stars), Liam Carney (Red Rock; Outlander), Norma Sheahan (Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope; Moone Boy), Sean Flanagan (Foil Arms & Hog), Anthony Morris (Games of Thrones), Seamus Hughes (Jimmy’s Hall; Klondike), Barbara Adair (Derry Girls), Brendan Conroy (Vikings), Tom O Suilleabhain (Maze), Olga Wehrly (The Clinic), Diarmuid Noyes (Borgia), Liam O Mochain (WC), Lynette Callaghan (Cold Feet), Daniel Costelloe (Albert Nobbs), and Donncha Crowley (Fr Ted). The creative team behind ‘Lost & Found’ are writer/director Liam O Mochain, producer Bernie Grummell (WC; The Book That Wrote Itself), DoP Fionn Comerford (Vikings; Roy), production designer David Wilson (Omagh; Some Mother’s Son), sound Niall O’Sullivan (Frank) & Philippe Faujas (Pure Mule), make up & hair Caoimhe Arrigan (Death of a President), editor Ciara Brophy (Oscar nominated The Crush), and composer Richie Buckley (WC; The General).

Lost & Found is O Mochain’s third feature film.  He has made numerous short films, documentaries and tv shows.  His 2007 feature film WC won Best Foreign Film at Las Vegas International Film Festival.  WC also screened at Montreal, Galway, Dublin and the Cairo Int. Film Festival.  Liam’s debut feature film The Book That Wrote Itself had its world premiere at the 1999 Galway Film Fleadh, International premiere at the 1999 Vancouver International Film Festival and went on to screen at many film festivals worldwide. Fortune, his first short film, won best short film at the1998 Worldfest Houston International Film Festival. His short film Covet was longlisted for an Academy Award in 2013.

Lost & Found opens at Irish cinemas in Summer 2018

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November 29, 2017

Tribes

The Gate reinstates seats for the Dublin Theatre Festival but burns its audience a different way with a coruscating play of spectacular, hilarious family dysfunction.

Nick Dunning is Christopher, the patriarch of an intellectually combative upper-middle-class Jewish family in North London, or is it South County Dublin, we’ll have to get back to that… He is infuriated to have all three of his adult children Billy (Alex Nowak), Daniel (Gavin Drea), and Ruth (Grainne Keenan) living under his roof again, for various reasons. Shouting matches between Christopher and his children, Christopher and his wife Beth (Fiona Bell), the competitive siblings among themselves, and some combination of all the above are frequent, ribald, cutting, and funny. But as Nowak’s Billy is deaf, he misses a lot of it. Mercifully some might say. And others might not, such as his new girlfriend Sylvia (Clare Dunne), who is losing her hearing, and who teaches Billy sign language; setting him on a collision course with his already troubled family…

Now then… where is this play set? Nina Raine wrote it for the Royal Court in 2010 and set it in North London. If you think of North London and argumentative Jewish intellectuals and wordsmiths like the Corens, Milibands, and Aaronovitches that makes perfect sense. Idly relocating Tribes to South County Dublin startles, just as idly relocating an Arthur Miller play from Brooklyn to Buncrana would startle. Tribes was not written in French like God of Carnage, so why did it need that relocation treatment? What next, Harold Pinter done as Roddy Doyle? And why was the relocation so incompletely rendered? Half the cast employ English accents for Blackrock, and Dunning mercilessly pillories people from the North by which he means Yorkshire. It is a meta-moment when characters express (appropriate) surprise Billy will be interviewed in the (foreign) Irish Times.

Dunning is magnificent. He so dominates proceedings that when Conor Murphy’s gleaming modernist kitchen reveals its outré surfaces to be a projection screen for surtitles it is with Dunning’s voice that you read the immortal line “Well, was I right or was I right about the deaf community?” The surtitles that allow us understand the sign language Billy and Sylvia fire at each other also, in Raine’s stroke of genius, express the body language and facial expressions of all. So that Beth, when Billy makes his stand to leave his family’s ‘bigotry’, worries “Why isn’t Billy saying anything?” and then “I feel like I’m in a Pinter play”, before sniping silently with her husband: “I feel completely unapologetic” “Yes, you’re good at that”.

 

I was one of few laughing uproariously at a half-empty matinee, and such sparse attendance was not a one-off for this “huge hit with audiences”. Has the Gate purposefully burnt off its old audience, only to find the new audience that wanted edgy original material instead was largely …imaginary?

4/5

August 21, 2017

The Great Gatsby

When I came back from the Gate I wanted the whole theatrical world at a sort of attention to, providing seats. I wanted no more riotous excursions into costume parties.

Nick Carraway (Marty Rea) has just arrived in West Egg, and is invited by Jay Gatsby (Paul Mescal) to attend one of his Prohibition-be-damned ragers. There he meets his cousin Daisy (Charlene McKenna), her husband Tom Buchanan (Mark Huberman); an old Yale classmate; and their golfer friend Jordan (Rachel O’Byrne). Also floating around the Charleston’d chaos is the shady Meyer Wolfsheim (Owen Roe), Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Aoibheann McCann), her sister Kitty (Kate Gilmore),  Myrtle’s defeated husband George (Ger Kelly), and the protean one-man Repertory (Raymond Scannell). Over the course of an extremely long night (which makes pigswill of the chronology, content, and nuance of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel) Jay meets Daisy, Jay re-woos Daisy, but his insistence on breaking Tom’s romantic hold on her backfires completely, and Jay loses Daisy all over again. And then his business and life too.

Designer Ciaran Bagnall has raised the floor, brought forward the Gate stage; creating a double staircase and a dummy roof; and floored over the back area to create two lobbies; one for piano, one for a bar. Into this space fit maybe 170 people, instead of the usual 371, but that’s probably recouped by selling themed cocktails to the audience; roughly 70% women, who were nearly 100% decked out in full flapper garb. And therein is one problem with this production – as my regular theatre cohort Stephen Errity put it: trying to make a fun night out from one of art’s great downers. Another is the ‘choose your own adventure’ book come to life aspect: we were led into Tom’s NYC apartment, Gatsby’s bedroom, and, after the interval, Wolfsheim’s gambling den. Only the first, mostly using Fitzgerald’s actual words, worked…

Fitzgerald…  If you think his point was decadent parties then you probably didn’t finish the novel, and should be at Film Fatale’s annual Gatsby party at IMMA. Rea and O’Byrne excel at athletically dancing the Charleston, but does it gain enough from the audience playing dress-up next to it to justify staging it this way and not on the stage as Elevator Repair Service did for their choreographed bacchanalia in The Select: The Sun Also Rises? Does it make sense to segue from Carraway’s opening speech to the closing peroration, and repeatedly mash together lines from anywhere, an egregious offender being George’s decontextualised references to God seeing everything? Does it make sense to have George Wilson be a barman, yet still have Tom’s yellow Rolls-Royce that he knows as a mechanic kill Myrtle? Does it make sense to pretend this is one night when Tom, Nick, and Daisy are observed (by some people) travelling to NYC, and Jay and Daisy’s agonised tea thus apparently happens in the wee small hours? We’re into Baz Luhrmann flashy incoherence here before we reach the musical numbers that pad the 2nd act as if a half-abandoned Moulin Rouge! musical of Gatsby is poking through.

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The interval, 80 minutes in, found me sick of standing. 70 minutes later I was aghast that the handful of remaining scenes had been fleshed out by unnecessary musical numbers, the party had definitively gone on too long. Audience interaction had started highly amusingly when actors had to go with Nick being rumoured out of the Midwest by ‘a whole 4 people’, gone downhill with the utterly pointless preparation of the tea service, and degenerated to literal pantomime boos for Tom’s denunciation of the audience as uninvited and uninteresting. Actors bellowing at each other across a milling audience doesn’t synch with large parties being intimate nor make sense for Wolfsheim offering Gatsby a gonnegtion; indeed poor Roe’s main function appeared to be glad-handing groups of theatregoers. Scannell excelled at the piano providing mood music for Daisy and Jay’s fretful tea.

The costumes, designed by Peter O’Brien, are terrific; especially Gatsby’s spiffy pink suit. Yet the point of this show, imported from the Guild of Misrule’s original production with Alexander Wright still directing, seems to be that you, the audience member, dressed in your best flapper gear, are the show as much as the actors. Which rather deflates the great performances: Rea finds all new notes of nervousness as Carraway, who’s not as sardonic as he presents himself in narration, while O’Byrne is incredibly effective as Jordan, registering a disdain for the world which shines through her musical performances, and a fearless McCann renders her sultry Myrtle as the physical embodiment of Nelly Furtado’s ‘Maneater’. Huberman doesn’t have the hulking physique but is a startlingly good Tom replete with habitual dominance (and his moustache and projection reminded me of Keith Thompson!).

Nobody amidst the rave reviews for this bold and brave use of the Gate space seems willing to acknowledge the atavistic cruelty at work. The Gate audience, as has been widely remarked, is older, there are usually a notable number of walking sticks; and the new regime welcomes them by shouting – there are no seats, dance! What exactly did they do to deserve this opprobrium? They didn’t like Crestfall, which the Irish Times just savaged for depravity. They did like Ralph Fiennes in Faith Healer and Michael Gambon in No Man’s Land. They appreciate opulent costumes, clever set design, and, recently, acclaimed productions of titanic Albee and Murphy classics. Yet for these hanging offences they must be run off the premises, the Gate is trying to run a the-a-tre here! It is strange to burn your audience while feigning bonhomie…

Rea, O’Byrne, McCann, and Huberman were all splendidly cast, but I’d liked to have seen them in a coherent adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

3/5

 

The Great Gatsby continues its run at the Gate until the 16th of September.

March 25, 2016

Reflect. Remember. Reimagine. … … Celebrate?

On New Year’s Eve I posted a lengthy piece on my misgivings about how 1916 was being handled, and now with a Luas strike timed to disrupt the commemoration things have turned out even worse than I feared.

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The official tagline for marking the centenary of the Rising is ‘Reflect. Remember. Reimagine.’ It took me a while to figure out what sounded off about that. ‘Reflect’ seemed odd from the get-go, because it put me in mind of RTE’s Angelus visuals; the idea of people actually praying is verboten, so instead people stare off into the middle distance like so many Ingmar Bergman characters. The Irish Times and RTE do enough navel-gazing as it is, we don’t need as a nation to start ‘reflecting’ about 1916; indeed it encourages passivity, rather than activity – the endless refrain of ‘Oh, isn’t X awful, how can the Rising have be said to have fulfilled its promise?’ needs to be answered a bit more with a sharp ‘So, what do you plan to do about X, beyond using it as a rhetorical gambit?’ ‘Remember’ seemed odd, yet also oddly familiar. Then it hit me, ‘The Nation Remembers’, every year at the Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Sunday. What on earth are we doing remembering? Do the French remember Bastille Day? Do the Americans remember the 4th of July? Or could they be more correctly characterised as celebrating? By all means if you lost millions of men to a war that was not quite the ‘great war for civilisation’ that the medal given to Robert Fisk’s father had it. But if you kickstarted an end to monarchy and colonialism then you celebrate; just ask the Americans if they feel the need to solemnly reflect on and somberly remember Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration. ‘Reimagine’ meanwhile sees RTE recast 1916, in a jaw-dropping cinema advert, as an event that jumps straight to its logical conclusions: Mary Robinson’s election, the Good Friday Agreement, and Panti winning a referendum. History, once its got that embarrassing patriotic glitch out of the way, literally starting in 1990 with the election of the first Labour President, the prelude to Labour’s signature referendum, is beyond a parody of the Labour party’s self-serving narrative of Irish progress. History qua history is to be glossed over to get to the glorious present, all of a piece with the downgrading of history in schools, and above all we must never actually place 1916 in the sort of context Ronan Fanning does in Fatal Path – actual history.

Celebrating the Rising is something that’s not acceptable, apparently. We must wring our hands, not set off fireworks. And so we come to a moment, where patriotism has been so deliberately discredited that the Luas drivers are prepared to destroy a once in a century event in a manner that would have been unthinkable for MTA workers in 1976 during the American bicentennial. SIPTU have been only too happy to cloak themselves in the garb of James Connolly of late, but it’s to be doubted that a man who gave his life for Ireland would endorse the galling obliviousness of their posturing: “The proposal itself contains a very, very regressive concept, which is the idea that the people who are recruited between now and when the Luas extension is ready to go, that they would be paid on a new entry lower rate – which is considerably lower than the lowest rate which applies to workers when they join the company at the moment and this is a concept which has been objected to strenuously.” It is to be applauded that Jack O’Connor has finally realised that this concept is regressive, not to say abhorrent. Perhaps now, instead of trying to traduce the 1916 centenary and the best public transport operation in the country, he might share his misgivings with his friends across the union movement who spent the last 5 years mercilessly pulling up the ladder on new entrants to protect their own privileges.

“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave”

February 25, 2016

Austerity and the Arts

The Journal has compiled a handy guide to various political pledges on arts funding. But take all with the caveat of Pat Rabbitte’s infamous slip on farcically utopian bait-and-switches, “Sure isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”

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Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture at the British Library last year excoriated politicians, especially the Tories, for wanting to bask in the reflected glamour of cultural icons, and boast about the money such activity makes for Britain, both in its own right and in attracting tourists via a sheen of national creativity, without ever wanting to invest in it. According to him these people believed artists magically appear, and start providing a return without requiring any initial capital outlay; an impressive economic conjuring trick to be sure. Whereas, he pointed out, Roxy Music would not have come about without a previous generation establishing a whole gamut of public investment in the future: the NHS, Arts Schools, libraries, galleries, museums, and the dole. According to the Social Democrats there has been a 55% cut in arts funding since 2008 in Ireland. Such cuts dramatically change the cultural current. Take Annabelle Comyn.

Annabelle Comyn was the founding artistic director of Hatch Theatre Company in 2004. She directed a number of contemporary British plays (by Martin Crimp, Dennis Kelly, David Greig, and Zinnie Harris) with regular collaborators including set designer Paul O’Mahony, sound designer Philip Stewart, and actor Peter Gaynor. Then in 2009 Hatch Theatre Company saw its grant slashed from €90,000 to €20,000. After that there was no funding for any projects submitted, and Comyn, who had also directed Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and Caryl Churchill’s A Number for the Peacock in 2006 and 2007, took the hint. As she told the Irish Times in a 2014 interview “I remember thinking that the work I had done with Hatch – predominantly contemporary British plays – wouldn’t get funding.” So began two years in which one of Ireland’s best theatre directors didn’t work as a director.

And then Abbey artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail offered her the chance to direct Pygmalion at the Abbey’s main stage in 2011. So began a new phase of Comyn’s career. Her version of Shaw’s comedy emphasised that Henry Higgins really is stripping Eliza Doolittle not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims. The coldness of Charlie Murphy’s Eliza to Higgins in their final scenes captured the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on, and was an unexpected touch. 2012 saw her back on the Abbey main stage reviving Tom Murphy’s 2000 Abbey commission The House. This Chekhovian tale of social climbing and the frustrations of returned emigrants in the 1950s saw Comyn add new strings to her bow as she blocked 13 people for a chaotic drunken speech and fight. Comyn’s interpretation of Murphy’s melancholic character study with barbed commentary on societal failure saw her win Best Director at the Irish Times Theatre Awards. And yet…

DG declan conlon and Catherine Walker

A director who specialised in premiering contemporary British plays is now (with the exception of 2012’s The Talk of the Town) exclusively reviving classic texts. A cultural current in Irish theatre has been diverted, and you can be sure that nobody returned to Dail Eireann after tomorrow will have as a priority allowing it to resume its original course. Does it matter? Well, John McGahern, the Irish novelist par excellence, would not have become the writer he was had he not been exposed to the works of Flaubert, Camus, and Hemingway. It matters if our theatrical landscape suddenly has a Berlin wall of austerity erected cutting off consistent interaction with new British writing. In the grand scheme of things cutting a €90,000 grant has had a larger effect than the latter-day Gladstone who made that retrenchment could ever have imagined.

To quote the two voices at the end of GK Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The other voice replied—

“The same that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost.”

July 6, 2011

Translations

It’s impossible for me to review Translations without first confessing that I know the script inside out, having both studied it at college and then taught it…

1833 in Friel’s eternal Donegal setting of Baile Beag finds a hedge school run by drunken master Hugh (Denis Conway) and his lame son Manus (Aaron Monaghan), specialising in Latin and Greek, being menaced by the arrival of a new English speaking National School, specialising in English. This off-stage menace is accompanied by the on-stage arrival of English sappers conducting an ordnance survey of the area for military purposes. But, as their work proceeds with the aid of Hugh’s other son Owen (Barry Ward) returned from Dublin, one of the British soldiers Yolland (Tim Delap) begins to question the morality of his task, even as he falls in love with local girl Maire (Aoife McMahon). The conflict between high civilisation and base commerce, Irish and English, and the noble rhetoric of progress and its low activities of expropriation, are all layered around these emotional conflicts. Maire’s love triangle with Manus and Yolland is very obviously a choice between a maimed native culture and a confident foreign culture…

Naomi Wilkinson’s set design heavily emphasises the squalor of this hedge-school, while Joan O’Clery’s costumes fit in with this approach by clothing the students in tattered earth tones, with the rebellious Maire in bright yellow and Hugh sporting a burnt orange jacket, while Hugh’s successful son Owen returns dressed in a spiffy blue overcoat, closer to the English military’s colour-scheme. Director Conall Morrison, who I’m still wary of on account of his late 1990s adaptation of Tarry Flynn, predictably brings sauciness to Friel’s comedy in the opening act. In the second act, however, he changes gears as the blue sky above the barn-set darkens, so that the rain sound effect heightens a chillingly conveyed sense of doom that anticipates the impending Famine. Rory Nolan as Doalty and Janet Moran as Bridget carry the bulk of Morrison’s slapstick; Nolan does a glorious mime of the English sappers’ baffled reaction to their ‘malfunctioning’ equipment, a result of his mischief; but they also imbue the off-stage Donnelly twins, often interpreted as proto-IRA figures in their campaign against the British presence, with the appropriate menace by their subdued reaction to their names being mentioned.

The inevitable Aaron Monaghan is very sympathetic as the brother whose half-hearted resistance to the British breaks down under personal contact, even as Ward convincingly travels the opposite arc as Owen grasps the political implications of his linguistic ‘collaboration’ with Yolland. McMahon is surprisingly flirtatious as Maire rather than simply determined, and there is a level of anger by Hugh towards her dismissal of his classics that seems alien to the script, as is his appearance as utterly decrepit. It seems absurd to accuse someone with an Irish Times Best Actor Theatre Award of lacking the necessary stature for a role, but Denis Conway is no Ray MacAnally, and he fails to dominate the stage as Hugh should. As a result Hugh’s final speeches to a drenched Maire, which should be tragic, raised some laughs. Conway effectively mixes bombast with moments of self-awareness, but if Hugh’s paraphrasing of George Steiner’s linguistic theories do not grip as the central statement of the self-defeating cultural delusions that colonisation can foist on a materially defeated civilisation then the focus of the play becomes diffuse.

This is well worth seeing, but there are quibbles…

3.5/5

Translations continues its run at the Abbey until the 13th of August.

June 10, 2011

On Fassbendering

“To Fassbender: To very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work”. That’s the Urban Dictionary definition at any rate. But, like the residents of Madison Avenue advertising firms in the 1960s being termed Mad Men, I defined it myself…

So, where on earth did I get the concept of Fassbendering from? Well, I first really noticed Michael Fassbender when he played Azazeal in Hex, and my reaction to the show was pretty much “meh, pale Buffy rip-off, but serious kudos to that guy who’s really enjoying himself far too much as the Big Bad”. Later on I realised that he was the actor from Guinness ad who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. The fact that Fassbender had ended that ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again, suggested a trend – this was a guy who just couldn’t stop grinning mischievously because he was always enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender fell off my radar for a while so I only belatedly noticed that he grinned with some malevolence in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, as he got to be both an impeccably impassive servant and a sadistic serial killer; who, several years before Heath Ledger’s Joker, took a distinct pleasure in being tortured by Holmes. I also later caught up with ITV’s Poirot and discovered that Fassbender had smoked, drank, drawled and grinned his way thru After the Funeral.

But his ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where I really started to take this nonsense seriously, if you will. I have found among my circle that whoever watched 300 as a serious action drama thought it was unbearably bad, but whoever watched it thru the absurd prism of Fassbender (on my prompting) thought it was a deliriously great black comedy. Watching the film with Fassbender as your focus you realise just how much fun he’s obviously having. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning… Later he jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Well then, we shall fight in the shade”, with the air of a man once again enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender gets to be half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and, in his definitive moment of gleefulness, when the Persian mystics are throwing bombs Fassbender runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. In the darkness lit only by bomb blasts we can’t see Fassbender’s face underneath his helmet until we see his teeth, as he grins. Fassbender does something awesome in the denouement to allow Leonidas to do something even more awesome, before holding hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines; where even dying becomes a blast…

But, daft as it sounds, it was Fassbender’s subsequent role in Hunger that led me to go online and define Fassbendering, because, when announcing the casting news from Cannes the Irish Times, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to accompany the story that Fassbender was taking on this big serious role in what one would expect to be a grim sombre film, with a photo of Fassbender cracking up on set – as if there was nothing on this planet, not decency, not logic, that could prevent Fassbender from enjoying himself too much… And indeed Hunger did provide one moment which I deemed Fassbendering above and beyond the call of duty. In the midst of a serious performance in a serious film he still managed to sneak in a scene where, after being beaten up and then dropped naked and bloodied on the floor of his cell, his Bobby Sands rolls over, blood streaming from his mouth, and slowly grins at the camera… On retrospect this is obviously the moment where Sands realises he can defeat his captors by doing this to himself by going on hunger strike, but would anyone but Fassbender dare to do communicate this by a grin, that also serves to indicate that he knows he is doing a great job with this role and still can’t quite believe his luck.

Fassbender had a straight man role in Inglourious Basterds opposite Mike Myers’ absurdist British officer, and then in one of the tensest sequences in the film, but I argue that he was able to play things straight because he didn’t need to Fassbender, he’d already infected the entire ensemble. Christoph Waltz’s ecstatic glee at his role is pure Fassbendering, especially his appreciation of the musical qualities of Italian names and Diane Kruger’s explanation of her leg injury, during which he has to go off to one side to laugh himself sick. The trailer for Jonah Hex left me in tears of laughter as Fassbender’s first appearance as henchman Burke saw him grinning manically while dressed as a droog and setting fire to a barn with someone trapped in it. You can only hope that one day Fassbender gets to truly cut loose with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films.

So what is Fassbendering? I used 300 for the definition because it’s the supreme example of a man just obviously enjoying himself far too much for something that’s meant to be paid work, hence my quip – “On being handed the cheque he probably said ‘No, really I couldn’t. It’s just been such a blast. Can I keep the cape?” Now, Fassbendering is not unique to Fassbender, but only in one sense as I will argue in a minute. I would argue that the Red Hot Chili Peppers can be audibly heard Fassbendering their way thru BloodSugarSexMagik because when you listen to it you feel that they would do this for free, they are so obviously deriving too much enjoyment from their paid work. But Fassbendering always has a positive undertone, what is enjoyable for the performer is enjoyable for the audience too, unlike fiascos like Ocean’s 12 where a group of actors obviously having a ball does not translate into the warm hug of the audience that the same actors having a ball provides in Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 13. Fassbendering therefore is high praise when I use it for another actor, as I have occasionally done (Iron Man, Speed Racer, The Importance of Being Lady Bracknell, Death of A Salesman, 7 Reasons to Love Scott Pilgrim, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Pygmalion, X-Men: First Class).

The part of Erik Lensherr is dark and vengeful, but there is some Fassbendering. The most obvious moments come in the recruitment and training montages where Erik suddenly reveals a hitherto unsuspected sardonic side. These are where any actor would grin widely at how much fun they’re having, even if Fassbender grins wider than most. The true moment that defines Fassbendering as something that only Michael Fassbender truly personifies comes in the extremely tense sequence in the Argentinian German Bar. Fassbender smiling widely drops loaded hints to the ex-Nazis, “They had no name. It was taken from them, by pig-farmers, and tailors”, his smile confusing the hell out of them, even as he slowly drains his drink, still looking affable, but perhaps to be feared. Fassbender is obviously enjoying himself far too much in this scene, but what’s more, to paraphrase Werner Herzog, he’s conveying an inner thought process of his character that other actors would not attempt – Erik really is obviously enjoying this Nazi-hunting business far too much…

February 25, 2011

On Not Live-blogging the Oscars

“If the headline is big enough, then the story is big enough”. Events are only as important as the media deems them to be. Big Brother was a flop when it began on Channel 4 in 2000, not least because the tabloid press sneered constantly at the stupidity of the concept. When they decided to change their tunes and cheerlead for it instead, they created its audience by making it seem that who got evicted when somehow mattered. Big Brother hadn’t become any less inane; the media had merely decided that it was now important. So it was. And this is where the Oscars come in. I was driven to distraction last year by the spectacle of the Irish Times not only wasting space on Saturday simultaneously predicting the winners while sneering at how other contenders were better, but then trumpeting on their front page on the Monday that you could read their blog coverage of who did actually win. The ‘paper of record’ practically apologising for being published too early to be able to list the clowns who won the annual meat-parade infuriated me so much that I wrote a quick snippy demolition of the Oscars after the fact as a tangent to my sequence of articles on media manipulation, critical misperception and popular reception of cinematic successes. I just forgot to actually write that…

I stand by the reasons I gave for not doing a live-blog of the Oscars but I’d like to expand them and properly illuminate the most important one. There is the practical consideration. Why would an Irish media outlet, like Movies.ie who are currently trumpeting theirs, do a live-blog of the Oscars? It does not make sense for the Irish Times as opposed to the Chicago Sun-Times to live-blog the Oscars as most of their readers are asleep rather than watching TV. Automatically the live-blog becomes a stale transcript to be read the next morning. Which leads to my conceptual problem with live-blogging – it is performing live, for a writer. The meaning of performing live, which gives theatre its magic, is in its ephemeral nature. A live episode of ER carried a frisson for the American viewer then, entirely absent for the Irish viewer watching a re-run now, and wondering why people keep forgetting their lines and falling over props. A live-blog, if pure to its own conceptual ideal, would be deleted at the end of its writing. The reference to ER is intentional; it’s a scripted episode, performed live. But a live-blog is an episode improvised as the director shouts plot-points at the actors who try to respond creatively in the moment. I co-directed a comedy script the actors loved to riff on, and twenty minutes of improvisation around a forty minute show produces maybe five moments worthy of being scribbled into the script. Against those odds live-bloggers must write witty insights for post after post, minute after minute, hour after hour. I don’t believe Fry & Laurie writing together could produce something that was good live, and if they did it would be pointless keeping a transcript – writing is considered reflection, not spontaneous rambling, as Lester Bangs infamously discovered when he accepted a challenge to write a gig review live onstage…

Above all my animus towards live-blogging was that it is merely the newest way of giving the oxygen of publicity to an event that desperately needs to be ignored. The coverage by the Irish Times last year explicitly recognised that the actual winners were rarely the best the year in cinema had offered so it is too much to ask that media coverage be dialled down until it reaches the level of saturation the quality of the awards warrants? If the Oscars were a dog show, it would be Crufts. If people wanted to read a live-blog of Crufts that might be their concern, but the BBC pulled coverage of Crufts because of concerns over the cruel breeding that its awarding criteria encouraged, and the Oscars is a Crufts that most years denies entry to the most popular breed of dogs, and encourages only a tiny and unhealthy range of dogs to be bred for competition, while renegade dog-lovers both strive to keep some unfavoured breeds from extinction and supply the other unfavoured breeds beloved of the public. The Academy’s insane predilections have arguably distorted the entire medium of cinema. Walk the Line had trouble securing financing because it was a mid-budget drama. It wasn’t a blockbuster which could be sold to a mass audience, and it wasn’t a low-budget indie drama that could be sold on its Oscar nominations to a small audience, it was merely a cracking film – and that left it nowhere. The Oscars tend to squeeze serious drama into a tiny release window, downgrade the critical esteem afforded to quality mass entertainment, and encourage ‘independent’ movies to adopt a rigid set of clichés (think Sunshine Cleaning) in order to base their marketing campaigns around their Oscar nominations.

Any publicity given to the Oscars only perpetuates this destructive effect and so, as a small individual gesture, until the Oscars recognise quality blockbusters and skilful comedies, and develop a long-term memory greater than three months, this blog will only treat them annually to the healthy dose of derision they deserve. Read some more of the Academy’s greatest mistakes in Oscar Schmoscar Part II.

February 19, 2011

In Defence of Comic-Book Movies

Ah inconstancy, thy name is critic. At least when it comes to comic-book movies…

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2005. In June Batman Begins was hailed as intelligent and dark, a triumphant re-invention of the Dark Knight. Fantastic Four was then greeted with a universal groan of “Oh No, Not Another Comic-Book Movie!” in July. In September A History of Violence was enthusiastically received: it was compelling, disturbing, and, um, a comic-book movie. This predominant snobbish attitude towards one particular source of movie adaptations is unwarranted. There has never been, nor will there ever be, enough original screenplays to feed the beast; cinema is forced to cannibalise other mediums. Films have been made of out novels (Never Let Me Go), plays (Rabbit Hole), novellas (Shopgirl), short stories (The Box), poems (Troy), magazine articles (The Insider), TV shows (Star Trek), and yes, Hollywood even managed to get out a two hour film out of the country and western song Harper Valley PTA.

Why then do critics have such scorn for comic-books, just one source among many? The quite often blanket condemnation seeks to encompass a whole medium in one idiot generalisation. Can you imagine ignoring the variety and depth of the novel form which encompasses Cecilia Ahern as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky with howls of “Oh No, Not Another Novel Based Movie?” How then can one condemn a form which includes Maus and Palestine as well as Batwoman and Witchblade. It is odd that comic-books should be so peculiarly obnoxious to some critics as a source of stories given their properties. Comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema being a combination of words and images. Indeed all films are storyboarded scene by scene, that is, drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally did the obvious and treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were a storyboard and simply shot what was drawn. It’s just a pity they picked such a goddamn lousy comic to pay such veneration to.

Hollywood is feeding into the production line a whole medium of already visualised blockbuster adventures dripping with characters that possess enormous and positive name recognition. The comic-books that tend to be plundered are probably more suited to the serialisation now possible in television, but have to be Hollywood blockbusters owing to the special effects budgets needed for convincing superheroes. Heroes though showed that it was now possible to deliver convincing effects on a TV show and, utilising the expertise of comics great Jeph Loeb, create a serial story that hooked viewers. Its cancellation though leaves the multiplex as the natural live-action home of the DC and Marvel universes. And with great budgets come great responsibilities. To minimise the risk of flopping mega-budget movies for the most part (Avatar, Titanic) play things extremely safe; quite often it’s not the comic-books being adapted that are dumb but their film versions, as studios dumb then down for the greatest mass appeal. Indeed reviews of comic-book films miss this distinction by sometimes seeming to pride themselves on complete ignorance of the comics, witness Donald Clarke’s pre-packagedly jaded review of Fantastic Four. His sneers at the comic-book sowed doubts that he’d ever read it or he would be aware of the unexpected emotional depth of the original 1961 title. He also elided its importance in creating the Marvel stable, its success allowing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to go on to create characters from Spider-Man to The Hulk and Iron Man to the X-Men.

Critics seem to regard comic-book movies as being intrinsically juvenile and unworthy of the big screen, but tend to praise the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, purely it seems because of their propensity for explicit sex and violence which, apparently, are the hallmarks of ‘mature’ movies. The twinning of Miller and Moore has become ever more farcical as Miller’s pet-project The Spirit exposed the sublimely stupid nature of his aesthetic, while Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics exposed the gulf between what a mature comic dripping wit and allusiveness and a film dripping CGI and test-screenings can do with the same concept. One can defend comic-books by citing Moore, who always wrote comics with big ideas (V for Vendetta, From Hell) before turning to novels (Voice of Fire, Jerusalem), but most comics merely aspire to be fun. And if a comic is well crafted, clever, exciting and affecting fun, why shouldn’t it be praised in the same way that Kathy Reichs’ Bones thrillers deserve great praise even if they are held to be populist trash next to a far less popular but oh-so-zeitgeisty Jonathan Franzen ‘masterpiece’?

Not every work of art is a penetrating insight into the human condition, not every work of art needs to be, most just aspire to be a good story well told. Is that not an admirable aspiration? Sneering at comics ironically recalls the scorn poured on people who valorised the works of mere entertainers like Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks seriously before the advent of auteur theory lionising them by Cahiers du Cinema. I unapologetically previewed a number of comic-book movies in my 2011: Hopes piece because comic-book movies are Hollywood’s flagship product right now, and a good comic-book movie is a good movie. Comic-book characters and scenarios obviously resonate or talented writers and directors wouldn’t continue to be drawn to them in comic and cinematic form. Indeed comic-book movies will only improve as more risks are taken. Mark Millar’s The Ultimates is the greatest blockbuster you will never see. It is intelligent, subversive, hilarious, outrageous and unfilmable because it would be too risky for the insane budget needed. Before condemning comic-book movies for dumbing down cinema read about Freddie Prinze Jr, trying to revive his flagging career by making a film about the super-team, but instead merely enraging Dr Bruce Banner: “HULK WANT FREDDIE PRINZE JUNIOR!!”

What we have right now are the comic-book movies that we deserve, but arguably en masse not the comic-book movies that we need…

January 27, 2010

RIP Michael Dwyer

I was saddened to hear of the death of Irish Times film critic Michael Dwyer. Many words have been written about Dwyer’s contribution to Irish cinema, his founding of the Dublin International Film Festival, and his work in building an audience for foreign films in Ireland. I can add little to such perspectives, what I can add is a personal note on what I think he meant to me and other film fans of my generation.

As the elder statesman of cinema at the Irish Times from a ridiculously young age Dwyer was more influential than anyone with the exception of Barry Norman in forming the archetype for a whole generation of what the role of a film critic was, and what films were worthy of recognition and championing in the ongoing narrative of cinema. My own personal experience of Dwyer’s writing falls into, yes, a three-act arc. First was the period of adoring respect – the religious reading of the Irish Times every Friday to see what films were good, what films were bad, what directors deserved respect, and the continual processing of his casual asides into an expanding mosaic of just what films from cinema past and present were important and good.

Then inevitably came the teenage age of rebellion. This began for me with sneering at his (still) frankly embarrassing laudatory review of Titanic in 1998, and then found greater expression in criticising his Top 20 Films of the Year lists which seemed to take a peculiar joy in not featuring films from the Top 20 Highest Grossing Films of the Year lists. Eventually this perception of an utter disjunct between critic and audience led to a jaded boredom with his perspective and a cynical distaste for the clichés of his style, especially when writing about sex and violence in movies, which found voice in a polemical University Observer piece about the tired and tiresome predictability of critical responses to films like 9 Songs and The Passion of the Christ.

The reappraisal came later, after I had finished writing my abrasive film column for the University Observer and had started writing reviews, when I realised just how difficult it sometimes is to sum up your reaction to a film in a short word-count. Indeed I could not possibly have hacked it as a film critic for InDublin, writing up to 6 reviews a week, had I not downloaded Dwyer’s review of 300 and taken it apart to understand how he structured his reviews – which gave him the head-start needed to make the sometimes tortuous work of reviewing seem easy. At this juncture, having cycled back to a position of mature rather than adoring respect, it was fitting that I finally met Michael Dwyer at a press screening of Youth without Youth. He was charming and talkative about the decline of Coppola and the history of InDublin and made me feel like I truly belonged to Graham Greene’s ‘mornings in the dark’ corps.

Other people have written about Dwyer’s tangible legacy but from my perspective his legacy is to forever be the voice in your head which asks, “Yes, this film is fun, but will it endure?” In a way every Irish film critic of my generation, professional or amateur, will have Barry Norman’s sardonic “…And why not?” and Michael Dwyer’s critical perspective internalised for life. And so long as we all keep hearing that voice then a part of him lives on forever in his readers.

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